Category Archives: Whisky Insight

Bespoke Batch Distilling

Your Mission – Create flavours never tasted before in Scotch….

Andy to David – “What would happen if we drew inspiration from the craft brewers and made spirits?”

David – “No, idea, let’s find out!”

Research – we both love Glenmorangie Signet (good research!) – a weird, flavoursome single malt, an alcohol infused tiramisu with espresso coffee notes….wow. Spoke to Dr Bill and we hatched a plan.

Met Simpsons malt and chewed an amazing range of “speciality malts” and could not believe the range of flavours and textures, so we set out to further understand the impact of speciality malt flavour on new make spirit.

The Controls – 100% Golden Promise, 4 yeasts – 2 brewers and 2 cultured.

The Wood – 12 amazing sherry butts from Tevasa Cooperage – the same supplier I used at Macallan back in the 1990s.

The Questions – where should we do this?

One obvious answer – with our mates at the Glasgow Distillery Company (GDC).

Glasgow Distillery - Our Test Lab
Glasgow Distillery – The perfect playground for grownups.

It boasts a perfectly formed small lauter tun, 4 easy to keep clean stainless steel fermenters and 2 magical copper pot stills.  A way to keep each and every mash separate from the next using a range of transit tanks, allowing us to collect low wines, foreshots, spirit and feints from every single mash and fill 1 cask from 1 mash.  Perfect control, perfectly discreet, perfectly simple.

But most importantly, a team of talented, helpful and innovative people – Liam, Dr Jack, Lok and Freddy.

The plan was hatched!

The Team
David, Andy and Dr Jack

The Recipes – what mix should we use?  Can we go 100% speciality malt?  Will it mash okay?  Will it ferment?  Will it distil?  Will it yield any alcohol?

Back to first principles – we worked with Tim McCreath at Simpsons Malt and did some lab scale analysis of various speciality malts recipes.

Lab PSY (predicted spirit yields) ranged from 7.3 litres of pure alcohol per tonne to 397.5.  Wow, what a massive spread!

Distillers today typically return a yield of 410-425 litres of alcohol per tonne….but are they creating flavour?

Costs – of course this needs to be factored in. The speciality malts are much more expensive that traditional distilling malts.  Plus, we were buying in tiny batches.  More cost!

Predicted Spirit Yeild Per TonneWriting up every aspect of recipe and distillation could take forever, so we will share information in general terms.  We bought crushed (already milled) malt from Simpsons and we paid anywhere from £600 to £750 per tonne.  Imagine paying £750 per tonne to yield 7 litres of alcohol!  A pretty expensive exercise….

How about recipe planning?  Again we sought a collaborative approach and organised a planning session (in the pub) with the Glasgow distillers and we each picked a recipe we felt would or could work to deliver relatively easy processing, reasonable yields and maximum flavour.

Malt Samples
A fun night drinking beer and chewing on all kinds of wonderful malt

The plan was hatched and agreed and we asked Simpsons to confirm the PSY by conducting lab scale mashing and analysis.

So, we had a plan and an indication of likely yields – ranging from a low of around 296 l/t to 397 l/t – a huge range in yield and hopefully a huge range in flavour impact.  Would inclusion of speciality malts deliver the flavour impact we craved?  Or would the fermenting and distilling process strip out and lose all the character we sought?

Mash Recipes
Malt recipes – proportion of specialist malt

Processing – we agreed to follow the classic 3 water mash.

Strike 68C to get 64C at the spout to activate enzymes and convert starches/large sugars to fermentable sugars.

Rest briefly, balance to underback, vorlauf (or recycle weak worts) and then pump to FVs and cool worts to 20C.

Add our 4 yeasts – 2 dried culture yeasts (AB Mauri Pinnacle and SAFWhiskyM1) and two fresh brewers yeasts (A top fermenter and a bottom fermenter) with the aim of creating true complexity!

And start the fermentation ASAP.

Sparge on the second water, drain, cool and collect in FV, sparge on the third water and collect in heating tank for next mash (although we didn’t do that for every mash!).

Our Original Gravities (Ogs) ranged from 1047 to 1055 – low by many of today’s standards.

We fermented to achieve maximum conversion of sugars to alcohol and this ranged from 70 to 112 hours before sending to the wash still.

Our final gravities were hugely variable and a correlation (as expected) was found between mashes with no or low levels of speciality malts fermenting well versus high speciality malt inclusions fermenting less well.

Alcohol strengths at many large and efficient malt distilleries today can range from 8 to over 10%.  Our trials yielded a range of 5 to 8%!   Poor for yield efficiency, but hopefully great for flavour!

Flying Scotsman - David's Breakfast
A flying Scotsman for breakfast

Distilling – The alchemy bit!

We typically collected some 5,000 litres of worts per fermentation, fermented for around 4 days and then split the FV in half to give 2 wash still charges.

So, across the course of our 24 wash distillations our initial running strengths varied from the mid 40%s to the mid-60%s.

Our low wines average strengths ranged from 15.7% to 22% – again a huge range, which correlates perfectly with the mashing recipes we have used.  Most distillers today would have very consistent low wines abvs between 22 and 26%.  After all, they are looking for consistency of production and are aiming to make the same low wines and same spirit day in day out.  They are new-make factories.  We are not.  We celebrate diversity in the pursuit of a range of flavours.

By using Glasgow Distillery Company we were able to keep each run discreet and store them in 1T transit tanks.  This allowed us to control, manage and monitor each and every mash, and finally fill all the new make spirit (NMS) in a single butt from a single mash.

Each run (1/2 a mash) typically gave us around 130 Litres of Alcohol (LOA) to 180 LOA per run.  Our flow rates were deliberately very slow and ranged from 1.2 litre per min to 3.2 l/min!  This was collected and used to charge the spirit still.

As this was a discreet experiment, we did not want any recycled liquids from any previous GDC runs.  This meant we needed to ‘build up’ our foreshots and feints until we had a better ‘balanced’ system where our spirit still charges could become more consistent.

We needed to collect and build up our low wines, foreshots and feints to give enough charge liquid for our spirit still processing.  This is where it all started to get critical.  Could we recover the flavour created from our speciality malts?   Distillation is, by its very nature, a simple process to purify the feed stock material.  Collect what you want and throw away what you don’t.  After much time at Diageo and The Macallan I am a fan of small stills and slow distillation and a very narrow spirit cut to concentrate the fruity, estery notes – but would this work for rich, chocolate malty flavours?

Steam On
Steam on!

So, the detail of our spirit distillations – when we went on to spirit and then off spirit to collect the ‘heart of the run’.  This clearly shows the feints build up in our first 2 mashes and 4 spirit runs – 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b – until, we reached a ‘steady and balanced’ state.  The variation in ‘on spirit”’ from mashes 3 to 12 show the impact higher or weaker washes from fermentation can have.

Spirit Cut Points on-off

Focusing now on the average spirit strength we can again see the feints build up required until we got a more steady state and consistent spirit cut average around 72% abv +/- 1%.

Spirit Cut Average ABV

To illustrate the point more fully we have looked at the quantity of both the ‘litres of pure alcohol – or LPA’ – and the ‘bulk spirit’ created from each of the 24 spirit distillations.

LPA and Bulk from each Spirit run

And finally, the rate of distillation.  As discussed previously we wanted a very slow, even, gentle boil to ensure good reflux and a balanced recovery of the purest and most flavoursome characters from these experimental batches.  We believe this to be the slowest spirit cut in the Scotch whisky industry.

Spirit Cut Bulk Flow Rates L per Min

And so to wood.  What wood?  Well, given my experience and the richness of our expected new make spirit we opted for first fill Spanish oak ex Sherry butts from Tevasa cooperage, seasoned with wines from Gonzalez Byass in Jerez de la Frontera.

A full load of over 50 mighty 500 litres butts were sourced, delivered to Glasgow and nosed, with RW101 picking 12 for our bespoke distilling project.

We were looking for select casks that offered up aromas of rich dried fruits, spicy tannins (clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger), orange zest and toffee sweetness.

Flavours and Aromas

But back to the spirit, the essence of what we were after.  What was it like?

Tasting Notes

Clearly we have recovered a range of amazing characters in our spirit.  We have the classic fruity notes as would be expected from 100% distilling malt – fruits, apples, pears, maltiness and nutty.

But even more exciting we have captured notes of chocolate, biscuity, toffee, nutty, golden syrup, roasted coffee, honey.

So, what happens next?  We wait….and wait.  And draw samples every 6 months to assess progress.  Will we lose the speciality malt characters we have worked so hard to preserve?  Will the wood dominate and hide those flavours?  Will there be a symbiotic relationship and the wood and chocolatey notes support and enhance each other?  Will things change to create new flavours?  Will we lose fruit and gain spice?  Will we create the world’s first ‘chocolate orange’ single malt?  Only time will tell!  We will report back soon…..

Cheers,

David & Andy

Chocolate Orange

Macallan Archival Series, Folio 1 – Drink, Collect or Invest?

Three of us recently found ourselves leaving Easter Elchies House under the shadow of vast looming cranes… the sort used to move big bits of shiny new distillery.

Having just tried the NAS Archival Series, Folio 1 (ASF1 from here-on in) in a nosing, we decided to make a purchase from the distillery shop… Macallan have been wisely releasing ASF1 in small, almost weekly, batches at the distillery to avoid the rabid Craigellachie-contagion known as Mac-madness, which usually accompanies a distillery only release.

Macallan_queue
Macalloonacy as frenzy grips the quiet Easter Elchies estate.

There were just two bottles left with more to be released at a later date.

One metal presentation box had a broken hinge (those hinges need sorting for future releases) but the other was in tip-top condition. Safe in the knowledge my bottle would be opened and consumed, I volunteered to take the broken packaging.

“WHAT, are you absolutely sure” was the cry from the Mac-colleague in the shop. “But, these are designed for collectors; you want a broken one?!”… An interesting retort. Clearly I was buying the bottle for the liquid on this occasion; the packaging went where packaging usually goes, nice as it is. But there-in lies an interesting concept: A bottle designed for ‘the collectors’. I actually applaud Macallan for being open about this. There’s so much bullshit flying round at the moment, so for someone to actually say, “know what, we had collectors in mind too when we bottled this” is refreshingly open. Being an almost life-long whisky collector I felt strangely included.

That does then beg the question of whether collector focussed releases contain lower quality liquid in the understanding that many will be left unopened? We shall see…

Macallan Archival Series, Folio 1 – DCI (Drink, Collect, Invest) Rated

Macallan_Archival_Series_Folio1

(D)rink : 7.5/10

There’s an immediate hit of meaty, slightly rubbery sulphur on the nose which I’m not keen on but can see many will like this character. That flashes off quickly in the glass. What’s underneath is actually really good Macallan. It’s not Macallan of old and it’s not going to compete with such as the early 1970’s 18 year olds but it’s not meant to. The dominant character is medium rich autumnal fruit and oak. It’s not Chrimble-cake in a glass, rather more subtle. The nose is more expressive than the palate which could benefit from a little more oomph. There’s something I’ve just realised: This is the first bottle of Macallan I’ve bought on a retail basis, I think, since 2012 when I fell out of love with a bottle of Macallan Gold (I remember describing it as 2012’s most disappointing dram). So, as a liquid, ASF1 is good. We’ll come onto price later as here’s not quite the place.

(C)ollect : 8.5/10

It’s Macallan. There are 2,000 bottles of it and it’s eye-catchingly, shelf stealingly packaged… and again, it’s Macallan!

Just on that, the packaging won’t be to everyones preference, it is massively bulky and heavy. Like fellow Edrington sibling Highland Park’s Valhalla series, it’ll eat shelf space. Can’t remember where I heard this but I’m sure I recall mention that there could be 24 releases under the Archival series. That gives longevity to a collector… maybe too much? Being this is the first release, it’ll always be in demand. A smaller release, higher ABV and/or an age statement/vintage would have seen a higher collectors score.

(I)nvest : 8/10

At £195 per bottle, it isn’t the first release of Bowmore Devil’s Casks in terms of a pricing-gift (see how long that lasted though!), so gains are not going to be on that scale. Nor are they going to be on the same scale as the discontinued Easter Elchies single casks. That said, the first bottles to hit the open market moved for c£400. New-release-curve then kicked in and prices currently hover around the £250 – £280 mark. Another worthy note is a bottle recently sold through an online whisky retailer for £540, further highlighting demand. We’ve also seen the concept of a shiny new series of bottles come to absolutely nothing (Balvenie’s Craftsmen series had just one release, the Cooper) which, if ASF1 were to be the sole bottling, would place it in the same investment league as many singular limited releases – Woodland, Ghillies Dram, Re-Awakening etc – but if the series is to be continued, the first bottle should still be worth buying at today’s auction prices.

DCI Score 24/30

Rated buy: But heavily dependent on the continuation of the series and also to some degree the general health of Macallan as a brand. A must-have for the Macallan collector and still at a broadly accesible price. More heavily weighted towards the collector but, given patience, investors should see steady gains. It’s way above average as a drinker’s dram from a quality perspective. If you’re passing, there might be the odd one still kicking round at the distillery.

Diageo 2015 Special Releases – Drink, Collect or Invest?

2015 SR

The challenge on Tuesday night (and early Wednesday morning if we’re being totally honest) was to wear this year’s Diageo Special releases…

Attack of the Special Releases
Attack of the Special Releases

For next year’s challenge I apparently have to abseil down Drummuir Castle while nosing the samples!?!? Thanks must go to Eli Larson from Diageo for that gem, thanks very much pal!

Anyway, daft stuff aside (and there was plenty), we got to test-drive this years bottles at Drummuir Castle (Diageo’s impressive fortress of solitude… or maybe Greyskull others may pose?) in the heart of Speyside. There are plenty of other articles out there now about detailed liquid profiles, so we’re looking at reviewing them with collecting/investing in mind.

That said, it would be plain rude not to at least briefly mention the liquid – That is what it’s all about of course. So, in order of preference and scored out of 10, they’re listed below. The way we (granted very rarely) score is that 5 is in the middle, therefore that’s a perfectly drinkable malt. These bottles should not feel offended by being a 5, that’s a good enough score for a good enough whisky. Most of your decent common-or-garden house malts are in and around the 5 mark from our perspective. 1 is undrinkable and 10 is the best thing we’ve ever nosed/tasted. Separately, I nosed a 22-year-old single sherry cask from Speyside Distillery on the way to the Diageo event… it got 1! It’s the first whisky this year to make me physically jerk my nose away from the glass… think molasses sweetened liquified rubber bands. Anyway; the legendary lowest score of 0.0 is solely reserved for Loch Dhu… it just has to be. Fact. Full-stop. The end.

Pittyvaich 25 yr old: Scores 4 – Actually below par for this one. It’s closed and un-revealing. You want it to give more but it doesn’t. A chastity belt of a whisky!!

Dalwhinnie 25 yr old: Scores 5 – My notes just say “is okay” … and it is.

Caol Ila 17 yr old: Scores 5 – Not blown away, but fine – average. Probably just prefer this to the Dalwhinnie but it’s close.

Cally (the) 40 yr old Grain: Scores 6 – You’d certainly not kick it out of the drinks cupboard but it’s really bourbon style sweet.

Lagavulin 12 yr old: Scores 7 – Nice juice. You know what to expect. You pretty much get what you expect.

Brora 37 yr old: Scores 8 – A mighty fine dram. Not the winner. Very much lighter, almost fresher than some of the previous 30 year olds. Amazing none the less.

Port Ellen 32 yr old: Scores 8 – Another top drawer contender from the Port. Really quite coal-smoky/tarry, especially with water.

Dailuaine 34 yr old: Scores 8 – Happily sit and drink this until the cows come home. Just lovely. Best of the 8’s, just edges it on the Brora and Port Ellen.

Clynelish Select Reserve: Scores 8.5 – My personal favourite. Loved it. Complex and multidimensional.

That’s the liquid – Least best was the Pittyvaich, best best was the Clyne-hellishly-good. It’s all personal though, I know others who really liked the Caol Ila and weren’t so keen on the Clynelish.

From a collector/investor perspective, we need to factor in some other variables. Some may be familiar with the Rare Whisky 101 DCI (Drink/Collect/Invest) model published in our 2014 annual review. This will evolve over time, but we’re going to start scoring bottles based upon those three criteria.

DCI Model RW101

To explain – Take the Dalwhinnie 25-year-old – From a ‘D’ perspective, it’s already been given a 5 out of 10. The ‘C’ element is going to take into account its appeal to a broad collector base… is the distillery desirable, is the bottling limited, if so how limited, etc. We’ll award the Dalwhinnie a 3 out of 10 for that. It is limited, it’s a mid-old-ager but it has limited appeal to Dalwhinnie 25collectors. Finally, the ‘I’ investor dynamic takes into account the most important investment principles – point of entry and point of exit. Is it expensive for what it is? If it is, it scores low, if not it scores higher. And does it have the potential to increase in value over time? The Dalwhinnie will score a 2 out of 10 here. Historically, Dalwhinnie has been a poor performer at auction with values frequently falling significantly lower than RRP’s. Our Dalwhinnie 25-year-old therefore scores a total of 10 out of 30 represented by (D:5/C:3/I:2). If you want to buy it, it’s a clear drinker, not one for a hold. Not really even a long-term hold as there are far better things out there from a collector/investor perspective for £250.

It’s a little ambiguous but then so it scoring a whisky on its flavours and aromas. What we’re trying to do is answer one of our most frequently asked questions of “what should I be collecting?”

The other 8 bottles look like this –


DCI RATED IN ASCENDING ORDER – 


The Cally 4040 yr old Grain – The Cally: (D:6  C:1  I:1) = 8/30

£750 per bottle. 5,060 bottles.

I really think this will struggle to sell. The price is just too high for a single grain. The whole single grain category has failed to capture the collectors market. Drink it, fair enough if it’s your style but don’t expect this to do anything other than bomb from a secondary market perspective. If you want to spend £750 on a bottle of Scotch for investment, go buy 5 or 6 bottles of Rosebank at auction. Don’t give this a second glance unless you’re simply admiring the packaging… which is actually very cool. 


Caol Ila 17Caol Ila 17: (D:5  C:3  I:1) = 9/30

£90 per bottle. Limited release.

Highland style Caol Ila has not fared well at auction to date. It does have a fan-base as a liquid; however, all but the rarest of Caol Ila bottles do little from an investor’s perspective. Low interest for collectors but good pricing will, to some degree, appeal to generalist bottle collectors.


Clynelish Select ResClynelish Select Reserve: 8.5 – (D:8.5  C:4  I:1) = 13.5

£550 per bottle. 2,946 bottles.

VERY good liquid. VERY high price. NAS. Last years release has appeared at auction and sells for c£300 per bottle. Expect the same losses to be crystallised from this years. Take advantage of that, buy this at auction and just drink it. The limited nature of the bottle at less than 3,000 means it has some appeal to a collector but anyone wanting to tuck this away expecting future gains should be prepared to hand it to their grand-children in 50 years.


Pittyvaich 25Pittyvaich: (D:4  C:6  I:5) = 15

£250 per bottle. 5,922 bottles.

A relatively voluminous release but very keenly priced. The first rule of investing in whisky is that the whisky should be superb quality. That falls down here. That said, there is a certain appeal noting what you’re getting is a relatively old whisky from a silent distillery. At this price, that can’t be overlooked. There are utterly miserable bottles of Port Ellen out there from indie bottlers which still fetch the same market value as good-un’s.


Laga 1212 yr old Lagavulin: (D:7  C:7  I:5) = 19/30

£80 per bottle. Limited release.

Accessible pricing and high demand will see this suited to many Islay / Lagavulin collectors. Early releases of the 12-year-old cask strength are performing reasonably well at auction but a lengthy wait is required. Don’t expect instant gains but a solid bet at the price. There are many Lagavulin collectors who will ‘need’ this to maintain the completeness of a collection so expect demand to be strong.


Dailuaine 3434 yr old Dailuaine: (D:8  C:6  I:7) = 21/30

£380 per bottle. 2,952 bottles.

Above average prospects for this relatively unknown brand. Attractive pricing and the high quality of liquid make it a compelling proposition to all three buyer-types. Depending what Diageo do with the brand moving forward will have an effect on values. £380 for ANY 34-year-old in this day is great value. One I’ll personally be buying to open and enjoy… If I can find one! It’s just one point short of pipping the Port Ellen but we actually see this as a stronger pure investment than the Port Ellen becasue the price is excellent for the quality and age of the liquid.


Port Ellen 32Port Ellen: (D:8  C:9  I:5) = 22/30

£2,400 per bottle. 2,964 bottles.

The last two years have seen these iconic bottles fail to sell out in their usual record time. £2,400 is a massive amount of money for a 70cl bottle of drink which is what it is when all’s said and done. To counter that, we’ve said it before, but the annual PE releases were vastly under-priced until recently. There needed to be an element of correction from a retail / primary market perspective. The rate of acceleration of those increases has been the main shock to the system. Still one of the most collected distilleries, but pricing has massively pared back these bottles as an investment. Are they going to be worth £5,000 in two or three or even 10 years? We think not but we’ve been wrong before. The key risk at this price is that many will be used to keep a complete collection complete, few will be buying two to drink one/keep one so supply won’t necessarily be taken out of the market.


Brora 37Brora: (D:8  C:8  I:8) = 24/30

£1,300 per bottle. 2,976 bottles.

Recent price increases (which were needed, it was far too cheap a few years ago) have prevented this being an outright 10 from a collector/investor perspective. But it’s Brora, stocks are thin on the ground, time is running out for the highland heavyweight collectable. Full set collectors will need this. From an investment perspective, don’t expect instant gains, the pricing has removed any likelihood of that. But, given time, we still see this as the pick of this years bottles. We could actually argue it’s still under-priced for what it is.


From a pricing perspective, there are bottles here which represent true value, there are bottles we think are particularly good value (the Brora, the Dailuaine and the Pittyvaich) and also bottles we see as poor value (mainly the Cally). We have to also take a view on the rest of the market. The recent release of 25-year-old Littlemill for £2,000 moves the phrase ‘aggressively priced’ to ‘we actually don’t want to sell this to anyone with a modicum of common sense’. The price for the Littlemill is perceived as so immensely high that I’m hearing of retailers refusing to stock it. If customers pro-actively request a bottle then one can be sourced, but they won’t physically stock it or actively market it… when retailers show a new product the door, you know there’s a problem.

I absolutely must thank Diageo for their amazing hospitality on the evening, it would be utterly rude not to do so; it’s amazing to be able to try all the special releases in one fell swoop. However, this isn’t meant to advertise or promote these bottles, merely assist in answering a question we get asked many, many times.

Interestingly, the Dailuaine is the one to sell out in record time this year, it’s disappeared from a number of retailers already. The big guns are still on the shelves demonstrating the need for a careful balance of price, quality and age/NAS. I wonder how many bottles of Littlemill 25 have sold?

Now and Then – Sherry Bombs.

The Past, the Present and the Future.

Slightly back to front, I’m going to start with the results before we get into some more detail. We recently blindly assessed some of the worlds largest and most influential single malt brands… Can their current entry level bottles keep up with discontinued past versions?

MACALLAN, GLENFARCLAS, BALVENIE, GLENDRONACH, HIGHLAND PARK and ABERLOUR… Take the stage!

b_highest_score_bybottle_ranked


The second ‘Now and Then’ was once again hosted by the whisky guru and raconteur Mr Charlie MacLean. For those unfamiliar with the Now and Then club, we meet now and then, and we compare/contrast whisky from now and then.

IMG_6063

Bacon sarnies, coffee and great conversations kicked us off in high spirits and we were delighted to welcome Gavin Smith to his first session – The full quintet was together for the first time.

IMG_6060

IMG_6065Sherry bomb sampling of 6 highly respected distilleries was the tough ask of the day.

We chose the above distilleries for their strong sherry bias, past and/or present. All are strong brands with a pedigree of unquestionable quality…. But that was then and this is now!

IMG_6064Before some in-depth analysis of the scores we pose the hypothesis – OLDER BOTTLINGS ARE BETTER!

Some personal musings and opinions close to my heart as to why this hypothesis might be true –

AGE: Is the average age of whisky in the old bottles higher than the contemporary bottlings?  Stock management is tricky when demand is outstripping supply. In days of yore (the 1970s, 80s and 90s) there was maybe a little less pressure on stocks and a master distiller or whisky maker could be a bit more flexible with the casks he/she selected for vatting, marrying and bottling.

I can clearly recall at Macallan we had large stocks of whisky from 1979 and 1980 which allowed our 10 and 12 year old whiskies, in the early to mid-1990s, to have the inclusion of older liquid. In percentage terms the amount of older whisky added was small but it none the less increased maturity, quality and richness.  It allowed me to balance out any younger, rougher, less mature stock even though that whisky was technically of the right age.

When Macallan was acquired by Highland Distillers in summer 1996 we began to look at the average age of all Macallan bottlings and compare them with Highland Park…..and guess what we found! The HP 12 was an average age of 16.7 years and Macallan 12 was around 12.5 to 13 years of age. No wonder HP 12 was winning so many awards back then. The folks at HP had it easy. I would have loved to make the Macallan 12 with spirit of an average (so there was some really old stuff going in!) age of 16.7 years old!

WOOD: More sherry influence in the old bottles and less in new releases? Have the casks changed? Has the process of “designing” the wood and setting in place acorn to cask supply chains reduced the quality of the wood? Is the wine/sherry seasoning delivering what is required? If I were heading up some of these large brand owning companies today I would worry much less about distillery efficiencies of mashing, fermentation and distillation (which has been done to death over recent decades and continues to lead to operational efficiency creep and spirit standardisation) and focus more, much more, on the “right first time” wood supply efficiency and effectiveness.

It seems to me to be crazy that production managers are held to account for minor efficiency enhancements but the same is not done to those employees sourcing the wood.  Research continues to suggest that the wood can contribute around 80 % of a mature whiskies character – I bet not even 8% of a companies operations research budget goes in to wood supply chain improvements!

The key here is the wood extractive potential and for European oak sherry casks you need lots of tannin potential to drive spices in to the spirit, sherry to add dried fruit flavours and then time and oxidation to shape, transform and mellow the whisky and add fragrance, orange and oak notes.

Of course, if we did an American white oak tasting we would be looking for vanillin and lactone extractives – caramel, toffee, crème brule, vanilla, fresh fruits and lemon citrus notes.

PROCESS: Barley varieties, slower malting, gentler mashing, more complex fermentation, direct fired stills and different cut points? All factors which to a greater or lesser degree change a new-make’s character. We know this but believe age and wood will have far more of a contributory influence.

BOTTLE AGEING: How does the spirit change in the glass over time? Chemically speaking, it must. Does significant bottle ageing change a spirit for the better, softening, rounding out and harmonising flavours? We believe it does.

All simple hypotheses (and opinion); none of which would be easy to prove one way or the other.

But what did the results say?

As usual we scored each whisky out of 10, meaning each whisky could achieve a maximum 50 points. We (Charles MacLean, Darren Leitch, Gavin Smith, Andy Simpson and I (David Robertson)) nosed and tasted the whiskies blind, in clear rather than blue glass and compared old v new for the following major brands –

 

Now (purchased July 2015)                     Then (1970s, 1980s & 1990s bottlings)

The Macallan Gold                                      The Macallan 10 yo, 1990s

Balvenie 12 yo Double Wood                      Balvenie 10 yo Founders Reserve 1990s

Glendronach 12 yo                                      Glendronach 12 yo 1980s

Glenfarclas 15 yo                                        Glenfarclas 15 yo 1970s

Highland Park 12 yo                                    Highland Park 12 yo 1980s

Aberlour 10 yo                                             Aberlour 8 yo 1970

As with our first session all about old vs new blends, this isn’t going to be a traditional write up of tasting notes, it’s going to be a little more focussed on the stats.


Single Malts are en-vogue.  Auctions continue to gather pace and achieved prices remain very bullish. So, time to see what all the fuss is about with old, sherry cask matured whiskies from some of the most sought after distillers.

The Final Scores.

a_total_scores

As seen earlier but worthy of comment –

The top 3 whiskies were Macallan 10 (old), Balvenie 10 (old) and Glendronach 12 (new).  So what can we learn from this?  Many of our clients and ‘the noise in the pipes’ we hear, suggests Macallan is losing its sherry style and that Glendronach is the new sherry bomb on the block. Our results certaintly agree with that. Macallan old greatly outscores Macallan new 38 points to 21.  Glendronach new outscores its own old by 33 to 30 and is the only instance where the new whisky was rated more highly that its older twin – well done Billy Walker and team for the continued focus on high quality sherry wood!

Turning to Balvenie we see old scored 35 to new of 31 – both delicious whiskies.  Interestingly Balvenie’s combined old and new scores were the highest at 66 points, just shading Glendronach’s total at 63.

c_combined_winning_brand

Apart from Glendronach, the panel preferred the older variants from the other 5 distillers.   Is this proof that older bottlings are better than their younger twins of today…we say yes, but it depends on the brand.

Brand Analysis – Variance in Scores: New to Old

e_score_variance_new_to_old

Macallan shows the greatest difference in score followed by Glenfarclas and then Highland Park.  Aberlour and Balvenie are pretty close with the old variants being slightly preferred overall by the panel.   Glendronach bucks the trend, with the new variant outscoring the old variant by 3 points.

Positives & Negatives – We had to at least do some tasting notes!

Top 3 whiskies

Macallan Old 38 pts – rich, dried fruits, spices, orange

Balvenie Old 35 pts –  subtly sweet, honey, fruits, vanilla

Glendronach New 33 pts – fruity, apple, pears, malted barley

Bottom 3 whiskies

Glenfarclas New 15 pts – sweet and sour, caramel, toffee, odd

Macallan New 21 pts – sweet, vanilla, tropical fruit, waxy, slightly sour

Highland Park New 25 pts – sweet, herbal, floral, light smoke

Overall Brand Scores.

When both old and new are combined we get a view of brand quality.   It was thought that Glenfarclas with its 15 yo entry would score highest and have the advantage of age.  That was not the case, the new 15 yo GF was the lowest scoring whisky with only 15 points – an average per taster of 3 points!  WOW, this is serious.  Especially as The Whisky Exchange has this bottling as one of its favourites. We can only assume batch variation is the culprit here.

TWE Glenfarclas 15

Has the mighty independent force of will from the Grant family maybe not got as many brilliant sherry casks as had been thought!

Highland Park was second last with a total of 59 points, only 2 behind Macallan – are Edrington struggling to keep pace with demand and is quality of wood purchase and thus bottlings suffering?  Do they need to get Billy Walker to source their sherry casks?

The other three distillers all scored in excess of 60 points.

Personal Scores – THE HIGHS AND LOWS

d_total_awarded_points_by_scorer

Gavin was the most generous awarding a total of 83 marks and was the most easy to please and found 5 whiskies worthy of 8 points, averaging 6.92 points per sample.

Charlie had the nose that seemed least excited and only awarded 59 points across all the samples, averaging 4.92 points per whisky with a spread of 8 to 2 points.

Darren, Andy and I awarded 64, 75 and 70 points respectively and were close to the average.

The Favourites.

So, which whiskies did each panel member want to take home!

Gav loved Old Mac, Old Glendronach, New Glendronach, Balvenie New and Aberlour Old – scoring them all 8/10.

Darren was a bit more discriminating, awarding 8/10 just once and lusted after the new Glendronach.

Charlie, tough (as old boots) and hard to impress, liked the old Balvenie and gifted it 8/10.

Andy with a 9/10 demanded the old Aberlour.

I thought 2 whiskies worthy of the magic full marks of 10 – Macallan old and Balvenie old – maybe my nose can still recognise that delicious old sherry style after all and I fondly recall working as a car park attendant at Glenfiddich/Balvenie in summer 1986 and the access I got to the old founders reserve.

The not-so-goods.

The lowest scores were given by Gav, Darren, Charlie and Andy to the new Glenfarclas 15 with 5, 2, 2 and 2 points respectively.

I was the outlier, scoring the current Glenfarclas 4/10 but I found the old Glendronach a little less pleasing and scored it 3/10.

Apart from Glendronach the findings here echo what we saw in our blends assessment.

Maybe Billy Walker should be made COO for Sherry Wood supplies to the industry – he seems to be getting it right more than some of the much, much bigger guys!

So what?  Where can you go to get these great old variants?  Auctions is one key place and we have found that prices for these old bottlings range from £60 to £120.   Interestingly, the new variants range in price from £25 to £45. The Aberlour 10 year old looks to be best bang-for-buck and is frequently discounted to around £20 per bottle.

Next time we’re together we move onto the Islands. I can bat the ball back to Andy and set him the challenge of an Islay Now and Then.  And after that, we will look to do some ex bourbon matured malts – with some of The Glens – Morangie, Livet, Fiddich, Grant, Rothes.

The difference between old and new bottlings of the blends was significantly more heavily weighted towards the older variant. With malts, it seems the scores are somewhat closer. The new blends achieved just 58% of the score of the old versions where the new malts achieved 78%… the quality of blends looks to have slipped more than malts… or do blends continue to ‘marry’ in the bottle far more than malts?

As the ex-Master Distiller from the (past?) king of sherry, The Macallan, it has been a fascinating tasting and report to compile! Please email in your comments and questions.  We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Slainte

David.

Fake Macallan Gran Reserva 18 Year Old – What’s in the Bottle?

Some time ago we posted up some images of a fake bottle of Macallan 18 year old Gran Reserva.

Horrible thing!
Horrible thing!

The bottle had been auctioned at Perth based Whiskyauctioneer.com (WA). As soon as the auction-house realised the bottle was fake they cancelled the sale and all was good in the world of rare whisky again. The right thing was done by a responsible auctioneer who take fakes very seriously.

The big problem is, much as all reputable auctioneers would like to destroy the bottle and remove it from the market, legally, they cannot. The offending item has to be returned to the owner who can choose whatever they wish to do with it. Probably list it on ebay in some cases, in others something far more interesting.

On this particular occasion the owner did something brilliant. They agreed the bottle could be opened and the contents, at least to some degree, analysed.

Thanks to Whiskyauctioneer.com we managed to obtain a 20ml sample from the full bottle. The team at WA described the contents upon nosing the full, open bottle as “a bit funky”. A descriptor we would wholeheartedly agree with.

Without sending the sample for a pile of chemistry doing, we too, assessed it organoleptically and measured the alcohol content with our faithful portable alcohol meter… affectionatley known as ‘Scooshie’.

Even upon the full bottle being opened, you could smell far more grape than grain in the bottle.

After nosing the sample in detail we came to the conclusion this was indeed some sort of whisky (most likely a cheap blend) diluted with cheap, dark sherry to give a very good colour match. There was clearly some ‘bite’ and a far higher level of alcohol than simply sherry on its own. Just imagine the damage these things could do to a brand if it’s not spotted as a fake and the gets consumed in the (false) knowledge that this is the real thing?

Scooshie confirmed what we thought when she told us (accurate to within +/- 0.2% ABV) the liquid was 34.77%.

Fake Macallan 1979 Gran Reserva Contents

So if you have a massively burning desire to explore what cheap supermarket, own brand, bottom shelf, blended Scotch tastes like when mixed with cheap dark sherry… go on ebay and buy a bottle of Macallan Gran Reserva!

Bottled Icons – Black Bowmore

BOTTLED ICONS – BLACK BOWMORE

1 – THE LEGACY – GAVIN D SMITH

 

Every now and again a whisky is launched which becomes an almost instant classic. Mention the name alone and the eyes of investors and collectors light up with eager recognition. Such a whisky is Black Bowmore, initially marketed in 1993, with further releases following during the next two years.

Here we ask members of the Bowmore team to reveal some of the background to this epic bottling.

Who decided on the name?

The expression really named itself; being sherry matured and so unusually dark it was only natural that it should be called Black Bowmore.

Had Bowmore always been aware this was likely to be great whisky and earmarked these casks accordingly?

All the casks in Bowmore’s legendary No. 1 Vaults were, and continue to be, regularly checked. The Black Bowmore casks would have been selected for bottling accordingly, and although it is unlikely that anyone at the time could have predicted it would become so iconic, we knew that it was a truly great whisky.

No 1 Vaults

So just what is it about the Black Bowmore that makes it such a classic?

  1. Distilled in 1964 at Bowmore, Islay’s first single malt distillery and one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, the spirit was filled into oak casks which had previously been used for maturing rich, sweet Oloroso sherry.
  2. The casks were transferred to the distillery’s No.1 Vaults, Scotland’s oldest maturation warehouse located below sea level on the shores of Loch Indaal, to mature in a truly unique atmosphere.
  3. The young spirit developed into one of the most incredible whiskies ever produced in Scotland with an aroma that is incomparable; rich, sherry, cocoa, dark cherries, toffee, chocolate orange and mature oak.
  4. On the palate, the concentration of flavours is inimitable, gently rolling over the tongue like waves to the shore.
  5. Of the 5,812 bottles produced, very few exist today and have become extremely collectible.

 

What are the main influences on its character?

The main influences on the character of Black Bowmore are the new-make spirit matured in first-fill sherry casks and the maturation process in Bowmore’s legendary No.1 vaults. Being matured below sea level produces a perfect recipe of balance and richness, peat smoke and fruit.

Was there anything special about the casks used?

The casks used to produce Black Bowmore are perfect examples of the exceptional quality sherry casks selected by Bowmore to be ideally suited for long maturation.

Was the distillery using a lot of first-fill oloroso casks at the time, or would this have been really unusual?

Sherry filling was used in a higher proportion during the 1960s, and this was a style known to suit Bowmore, however Black Bowmore is proof of the quality of the wooden casks and conditions in our No.1 Vaults.

I understand you replace the wax capsule for buyers if it is cracked. How many times have you done that?

We don’t replace the wax, however we do re-seal with a spun capsule if the wax has broken off.  We have probably replaced only two or three over the years.

Did Bowmore ever expect Black Bowmore to become so iconic and increase so dramatically in value and collectible status?

It was understood at the time of release that Black Bowmore was an exceptional whisky; however no one could have predicted such a stratospheric rise in collectability. Black Bowmore remains one of the most iconic expressions to come out of our distillery.

What were Bowmore’s original tasting notes?

Tasting notes on the back of the original Black Bowmore bottle read ‘Remarkably complex, yet mellow, Black Bowmore is a superb example of an Islay whisky matured in sherry butts.’


2 – THE INVESTMENT? – ANDY SIMPSON

I recall way back in 2011, I think… maybe 2012… I had what could be called an interesting conversation with Mark Gillespie from Whiskycast about the whole topic of investing in bottles of whisky.

Mark appeared to be strongly against whisky being used as an investment which is great; as always, whisky has the ability to generate passion among its fans and also healthy debate.

So why reference a conversation which happened some four years ago?

We had a very specific conversation about Black Bowmore and the relative price consistency the bottles had been achieving at auction. If something has a completely consistent price it’ll never make it as an investment and, almost like clockwork, the first three Black Bowmore’s had been selling for around £1,600 each. In-fact throughout the latter part of 2010 and into early 2011 the first three releases could be picked up for exactly that – £4,800 for the trilogy.

Wind the clock forward a few short years and let’s take a look the state of play now.

IF you’d bought these three icons of whisky at what appeared to be the capped max price of £4,800, would that price-ceiling turn out to be made of impermeable stuff or would it subsequently prove to be glass? Let’s not forget these bottles originally retailed for around £100 per bottle so the increase-over-retail price was already vast. Could these bottles physically extend further gains or were they already exhausted?

An understatement would be to say they’ve done okay! In-fact they’ve performed remarkably well. The chart below shows their performance since 2008. The early years of the chart clearly illustrate the lacklustre performance and near stagnation before we started to see positive momentum.

Black Bowmore Index

Rather than vast spikes in their performance, it’s encouraging to see the rate of more recent growth is relatively consistent. Natural peaks and troughs give way to a fairly regular pattern of increasing values.

While these are not the best performers in absolute terms, an almost tripling in price over the last four years from an index value of 106.19 at the end of May 2011 to 294.25 at present is clearly impressive.

Had the set of three bottles been purchased in 2011 for £4,800 they would now be worth £13,300. That’s £8,500 ahead of their 2011 auction price and an almost unbelievable £13,000 increase in value from their original retail price.

With this level of increase over recent years, is there any scope for future growth? That’s clearly impossible to answer; however, the current high demand for Black Bowmore doesn’t look like it will abate any-time soon. In fact general Bowmore values have been hardening rapidly over recent months meaning the likelihood of plummeting values for these three icons looks slim (never say never though).

We frequently talk of the right and wrong bottles from a collectors/investors perspective; in our view the first three Black Bowmore’s don’t get much more right! Pure bottled icons.

Our hearty thanks go to Morrison Bowmore Distillers for their contribution, their images … and of course for releasing such exceptional Scotch!

Black Bowmore 1

The Risks of Investing in Whisky.

Don’t believe everything that’s written.

This advert from The Whisky Corporation in Hong Kong crossed my desk last week.

Glenfarclas Pagoda Trilogy

Like most of these things, they’re generally read then discarded; however on this occasion something really stood out. “The top 100 Single Malts yield returns in excess of 66% P/A since 2008 – Source CNN Money 2015”.

Wow! No-one told me… How come I missed that?

Rare Whisky 101 produces the indices which show how whisky has performed as an investment and the top 100 bottles haven’t increased by 66% per year since 2008. If that were the case, an index starting at 100 would, at the end of 2014, look like this –

Percent Increase Error

The Apex100 (the top 100 bottles, which you can see here) started at 100 points in 2008 and now stands at 597.26, a 497.26% increase since the end of 2008…. That’s almost a quarter of what’s being advertised here?

Searching around CNN I found this (http://money.cnn.com/2014/11/20/investing/whiskey-investing/) which I can only assume has been misinterpreted on the Whisky Corporation advert. What CNN actually say is this “Since the first whiskey index was formed six years ago, top single malts have risen in value by more than 660%”. That was factually correct, just at the end of November 2013 and for the top 10 bottles NOT the top 100. At the end of November 2013 the top 100 index was up 374.98%…. not 1,160% as would be the case here if a 66% annual increase were evident.

Whisky Highland (the company which grew into RW101) provided insight and information to Global Spirit Merchants (the previous company to The Whisky Corporation) in 2013. That data provision ceased in November 2013… So, being the founder of Whisky Highland, it was easy enough to go back though the records to see what was going on. Was I going mad? Had Whisky Highland provided the wrong information?

What was provided was information on the top 10, top 50 and top 100 performing bottles. The top 100 bottles (as at the end of Nov 2013) had increased by 374.98%. That equates to around 30.25% growth year on year to the end of 2013. Less than half what is actually being stated on the above advert.

CNN would appear to have been provided with data (not by Whisky Highland or Rare Whisky 101) for the top 10, rather than the top 100, which, at the end of November 2013 had increased by 662.01%.

Using incorrect data like this is, in my opinion, exceptionally dangerous. Readers frequently believe whatever’s written, especially if it appears to be endorsed by the likes of CNN.

Being concerned that RW101’s data was either being misinterpreted or misused, I had a more thorough look through The Whisky Corporation’s website. The following indices were of interest –

Whisky Corp Indices

Firstly, without exception, anyone who I’ve ever dealt with who (to a significant level) invests in whisky, or plans to, are intelligent, educated, curious collector-investors. The old adage – a fool and their money are easily parted – couldn’t be further from the truth… anyone who can afford to spend c£10k, £50k, £100k, £250k plus on whisky as an investment/collectable hasn’t made that kind of money by being a fool… nor would they easily give it away. So I find it hard to believe anyone would part with c£20,000 for three bottles of Scotch as an investment based on data which is almost two years out of date?  Each index finishes at the end of July 2013. I can only assume these bottles are being specifically sold as an investment as there’s no marketing around the quality of the liquid which you’d assume there would be if these were aimed at drinkers.

Each one of the above indices has also had the physical values multiplied by 10. The ‘Signature Portfolio’ (which I named the rather less catchy ‘High Value Bottle Index’) is a collection of 11 of the rarest bottles in existence (including the likes of the Macallan 1928, Balvenie 1937, Ardbeg 1965, Port Ellen Queen’s Visit). The starting value of the bottles was £25,200, not as is incorrectly stated £252,000. The value in July 2013 was £67,460 not £674,600. As a ‘Signature Portfolio’, I’d like to see anyone get hold of ten Macallan 1928’s, ten Balvenie 1937’s and ten Port Ellen Queen’s visit bottles.

The same applies to the other indices – For info and accuracy, divide the stated £ amounts by ten and that’s the correct value for each index start/finish.

Why highlight this?

Not because I think there’s anything malicious going on, not because I’m in any way shape or form accusing The Whisky Corporation of anything wrong (everyone makes errors in the rounding), it’s purely to highlight unfortunately not everything reported/advertised is correct. Especially in an unregulated market like whisky where there are many new collectors/investors in the category.

And as to the Glenfarclas Pagoda Trilogy for a cool £20,000. I think we can be sure these are cracking drams, but as an investment? As always, time will tell…

Caveat Emptor … Let Buyer Beware!

Glenfiddich Gallery – Is it Selling?

“Rarely am I utterly blown away by a new release these days; however, the Rare Whiskies Gallery from Glenfiddich has done just that… This is stunning.”

They were the exact words I used on the 21st of November last year to describe my initial view of the Glenfiddich Gallery collection. I still stand by that, clearly opinions are personal; however, Wm. Grant’s have done a great job on the visuals and the concept.

You can go have a play with a basic flavour profiler and get some good visuals.

Great visual results from the basic online flavour profile tool
Great visual results from the basic online flavour profile tool

You can personalise your own packaging to create separate identities for a bottle(s) should you decide to do so.

Glenfiddich Gallery Bespoke Packaging buy me

I had the utter privilege of blending some whisky with Brian Kinsman recently and there’s no way on God’s earth I would be able to do 1% of what Brian can do from an alchemistic flavour perspective. I would hand on heart believe these casks to be exceptional… Quality will not be a problem with this collection then, one would assume.

Digitally, it’s quick, slick, pretty, contemporary and cool. The liquid should be superb and this is an amazing collection from a true icon of Scotch… the distillery which started it all from a single malt perspective.

Why such low sales?

For a multitude of reasons (which we’ll come onto in a minute), on the face of it, sales of bottles from The Gallery look to have stalled. Stalled, then pretty much completely stopped.

I’m not just saying that because it’s an opinion; we’ve kept an almost monthly record of the volume and value of Gallery bottles being sold. The chart below shows the total number of bottles available across all 36 single cask variants (‘kind-of-single-cask’… but we’ll also come onto that) and what’s cumulatively sold so far, seven months after launch.

Glenfiddich Gallery Volume Sales Chart

A total of 1722 bottles are/were available throughout the whole gallery. The two months between the end of December 2014 and the end of February this year saw a bit of a rush with an average of just over 50 bottles sold per month. March and April saw just 15 bottles over that two month period. Since then, 3 bottles sold in May and 5 bottles have sold so far this month. Sales are slowing – not growing.

As a % of the available pool of stock, just 7.72% of the number of bottles available have sold. If the current trend of around 5 sales per month continues, the remaining bottles will have finally sold out in just short of 318 months, or 26 and ½ years-time. That’s longer than the typical UK mortgage term.

From a value perspective, while there’s no chart on this one, only 4.81% of the total £ value of all bottles has been sold to date.

So we have an iconic distillery (After running some early index numbers for the half year, Glenfiddich look to have moved significantly up the charts) with existing rare bottles in high demand, releasing a great collection of immensely limited numbers of single cask bottlings in pretty cool packaging…. And it’s just not selling.

Why?

Back to opinions again, but here are some of our thoughts –

  1. Consumer Engagement.
  2. Pricing.
  3. Transparency of offer and the DCI model.

Consumer Engagement –

If I’m going to spend £100k on a bottle of whisky, no matter what the Platinum offer is, I’m not going to do it on-line. I’m just not. The expectation of a prospective purchaser creating their own label (the same as for the rest of the vintages/bottles) on a bottle which looks the same as everything else but costs many multiples more seems a little incongruous to other luxury offers.

Maybe Glenfiddich will ‘hand-sell’ these to select customers and, if they sell – they haven’t yet – they will be uniquely packaged with an amazing customer experience. That said, they’re still on-line so we must assume that’s not the way things are to be done.

If I wanted to buy a car for £100,000 would I buy it on-line with no test drive and no personal involvement? Nope. No way.

These bottles are clearly designed for the gifting market but in an unproven world as we have here, they’re dangerously expensive gifts. My family/friends gave up trying to buy me whisky as a gift many, many years ago because they have no idea what I really want, and that’s great, I no longer have to look Grandma in the eye and, with seriously gritted teeth, thank her for the bottle of Whyte & MacKay Special she’s just given me.

Pricing –

Odd one. In the current market, some of the Gallery bottles seem reasonable. But with Wm. Grant’s I’m not sure what ‘reasonable’ is anymore? The 22 year old Glenfiddich single cask at the Whisky Shop is £1,200 per bottle, way more than a 22(ish) year old bottle at the Gallery. But then there’s the Glenfiddich Spirit of Speyside bottlings; older whisky at very small prices… busily undermining the value of other limited editions (but great from an auction perspective).

Then there’s sibling distillery Balvenie…. Under £75 for a bottle of single sherry cask 15 year old. Surely this is price undermining on a ‘fracking’ scale.

I’m not disputing the pricing policy of Wm Grants, all I’m saying is that I don’t understand it… As a consumer i’m completely confused, I really am… And I work with whisky pricing on a daily basis so lord knows how a less experienced buyer would know if they are getting value or not?

Transparency of Offer and the Drink/Collect/Invest Model–

For me this is the killer as I’ve mentioned elsewhere previously.

The Gallery bottles are bottles taken from single casks; they don’t appear to be single cask bottlings. If a cask from 1987 were to actually yield just 6 bottles it would be sludge from a leaky cask; it would be splinter-sauce, probably under-proof and pretty much unquestionably undrinkable. What it wouldn’t be is a commercially viable Sherry Butt at 55.3%. So these appear to be ‘bottles from a single cask’ rather than ‘single cask bottlings’.

At a relatively high price-point, I want to know how many bottles there are, especially if I’m a collector rather than a gifter. Hypothetically, there are just three full sets of every bottle from the Gallery available. Each full set costs £200,030 for all 36 bottles. There’s absolutely no way I’d accept the risk of buying these without understanding if another 3, or 4, or 34 or however-many sets could be released at a future date.

All 36 bottles also span just 15 vintage years. If I bought all 36 current releases, would 36 more be released later? What does the future of the collection hold? The whole offer appears somewhat opaque. Who’s the key target customer? The Rare Whisky DCI (Drink/Collect/Invest) model shows what a bottle needs to do to hit the sweet spot as below.

RW101 DCI Model

To appeal to all three buyer types at this premium level, there needs to be absolute clarity. As a drinker, if I buy one of three bottles, I want that ultra exclusivity. As a collector/investor, I want to make sure my limited release is as limited as I thought it was. The recent Springbank 21 year old releases are a classic example – The first release absolutely flew off the shelves and also performed exceptionally at auction. Once the market realised all future releases were virtually identical, this in effect homogenised all releases. This in turn has crashed secondary market values which now sit well below retail prices.

I’d love to physically see a full set of Gallery bottles together; that would surely look amazing. The squat contemporised version of the classic Glenfiddich triangular bottle is one of whisky’s modern triumphs of identity. One which I’m sure would suit a collection like this exceptionally.

Unfortunately with so many variables, unknowns and pricing anomalies, I’m almost 100% certain I’ll never have that pleasure.

I find myself wondering how these will sell without significant change…

Feis Ile Bottles – Collectable or not?

Like a swarm of wasps round a spilled Jack ‘n Coke on a hot day, the coming months are set to see the many whisky-auctioneers of the world flooded by limited bottles from this years Islay Festival. There’s almost an underground competition to see which auctioneer can get the first bottles onto the open market such is demand for these releases.

For those collectors who can’t attend the annual Feis Ile (or maybe just don’t do queues), auctions are a viable means of acquiring these desirable bottles.

But how do they perform as an investment?

Some of the older releases are collectable icons now, the 2008 Feis Ile Port Ellen sold for £100 to the lucky few who secured a bottle on the day. It now sells for around £3,000 at auction, a truly staggering result. Can the more recent, increasingly voluminous bottlings compete as a viable liquid commodity? Over the years I’ve spoken to many Feis-goers who would pay for their annual peat-land-pilgrimage by selling the bottled spoils of their trip after the event.

It’s one thing buying a bottle for £100 upon its release and selling for £3,000, but as an investment are these bottles worth buying on the secondary market? If so, which distilleries are the ones to go for?

The chart below shows the UK auction performance from the start of June 2012 to the end of May 2015 for ALL Feis Ile bottles sold. Such is the impact and value of the Port Ellen release we’ve included a separate line with that bottle removed from the index. Over the three year term measured, all Feis Ile bottles have increased by 45.27%; without the Port Ellen that’s reduced to 37.41%.

All Bottle Feis Ile Index

The current average price of all Feis Ile bottles is £304.40 which is taken back to £262.40 without the Port Ellen. As a full and expansive collection, it has to be said the Feis releases are not the best performing of bottles; however 45% over three years is still impressive and outperforms banks, Gold, wine and a host of other investments.

Feis Ile Bottles by Distillery.

In order to have some element of fairness around this we’ve taken four years releases, 2009 – 2012 inclusive, and measured these separately (noting Kilchoman released their first Feis bottle in 2010 we’re measuring three releases for them). This also gives a reasonably good period of time for measurement, if we took it right up to 2014, we’d only be looking at 12 months performance and as we all know, whisky should be viewed as a long term investment. We also created two separate indices for Bowmore, one measuring the lower priced more voluminous releases and another for the very rare more expensive editions.

We had an opinion about which distillery(ies) would be the best performers. Prior to running the numbers we were very much of the opinion we’d see Lagavulin/Bowmore right at the top and Kilchoman/Bruichladdich at the bottom. The actual numbers are rather less obvious and proved to be something of a surprise.

The chart below indexes the bottom four performing distilleries/bottle groups.

Worst Perfroming Feis Ile by Distillery

Bowmore Rarities = +13.68%

Kilchoman = -2.12%

Caol Ila = -13.31%

Bunnahabhain = -16.95%

Bunnahabhain has seen something of a rapid slide since last years Feis. In May 2014 Bunnahabhain Feis bottles were up some 19.55% (index 119.55). Over the past 12 months values have plummeted by more than 30% to their current level. The trigger point in time is very definite, it’s on-the-nose of last years Feis Ile, so what happened? Were 2014’s bottles just too expensive causing an element of collectors turning away from the brand? Did the quality of the liquid slip significantly? Whatever the reason, Bunnahabhain’s bottles have seen a step change shift into the red.

No Bruichladdich at the bottom then? Recent prices for virtually all bottles of Bruichladdich have slumped, with even the most sought after bottles tumbling in value. A good example is PC5 which used to sell for as much as £460 and now sells for £200 – £220 having lost over 50% from its peak price.

The chart below indexes the top five distilleries/bottle groups.

Top Performing Feil Ile by distillery

Bruichladdich = +53.67%

Laphroaig = +44.75%

Bowmore = +29.37%

Ardbeg = +28.86%

Lagavulin = +26.85%

In a quite unexpected final result, somewhat akin to the recent UK general election, Bruichladdich’s bottles have out-performed the rest by a significant margin.

Average UK Auction Prices.

Average prices per bottle per distillery/bottle group look more or less where expected. The rare Bowmore bottles take top spot with many other distilleries hovering around the £100 price point.

Average Feis Ile bottle price by distillery

The interesting thing this allows is a number of assumptions; the rare Bowmore’s use up a lot of capital for a relatively small return, or they have historically. Conversely Bruichladdich uses far less capital and is apparently making the greatest gains, although I would still urge huge caution here.

In reality, for those with a keen interest in the value of their collections from a keep or drink perspective, I’d be selecting some of the rarities and older single casks while they’re still appearing on the market reasonably frequently. This final chart shows the top 10 performing bottles from the various Feis Ile releases.

Top 10 Feis Ile Release Index

Now the Feis is a relatively large scale event, the volume of collectable bottles increases yearly. Where we might have previously seen a single cask from a distillery, in order to give as many folk as possible the chance to try the liquid, we now see thousands of bottles… which is a good thing.

Despite Diageo’s gift-at-the-Feis Lagavulin pricing, I still suspect these older, rarer releases will be where the future gains are seen.

Now and Then – Blends of old and their Contemporary Counterparts.

Or

The Past and The Present – A crystal ball for the future?

Bacon sandwiches and a good coffee were just the aperitif for a hard-days drinking, or rather sampling. Sampling of eight old blends alongside their current siblings. Siblings is a good analogy; family similarities could be seen… but the differences were, in some cases, vast.

The ‘Now & Then’ had their inaugural get together in Edinburgh.

Why the ‘Now & Then’?

We meet now & then, every three months or so and we compare/contrast whisky from now and then.

Scoring each whisky out of 10, being one man down (Gavin D. Smith couldn’t make it) meant each whisky could achieve a maximum 40 points. We (Charles MacLean, Darren Leitch, David Robertson and I (Andy Simpson)) nosed and tasted the whiskies blind each time by three of the four of us (one of us prepared the samples for two old and two new bottles), in clear rather than blue glass and compared old v new for the following major brands –

Now (purchased March 2015)   Then (mid – Late 1970’s bottles)

Ballantines Finest                         Ballantines Finest

Black Bottle                                   Black Bottle

Chivas 12                                       Chivas 12

Grants Family reserve                 Grants Stand Fast

Johnnie Walker Red Label           Johnnie Walker Red Label

Teachers Highland Cream           Teachers Highland Cream

White Horse Fine Old                   White Horse Fine Old

Whyte & MacKay Special             Whyte & Mackay Special


Charles getting into his 1970 Johnnie Walker Red Label
Charles getting into his 1970’s bottled Johnnie Walker Red Label
Darren being well dressed and perfectly groomed
Darren being well dressed and perfectly groomed
David doing what he does best
David doing what he does best.
Andy clearly disliking something. Guess what?
Andy clearly disliking something. Guess what?

This isn’t going to be a traditional write up of tasting notes, it’s going to be a little more focussed on the stats. While we took detailed notes, RW101’s modus operandi is to use data to drive our insight and intelligence.  The numbers don’t lie so we’re more or less going to stick with them.

Blends are where it all started for Scotch whisky as a ‘proper’ industry so blends were where we started. The biggest whisky companies in the world are primarily blenders and the biggest selling Scotch whiskies (by millions of cases) in the world are blends. Love them or loathe them, without blends we would be without Scotch as we know it today. Worthy of note; all but one of these bottles bore no age statement in both old and new guise. Chivas 12 year old was the only whisky with an age statement. Clearly the expectation for malts is very different and we’ll certainly cover that old chestnut another time.

The Final Scores

Each old whisky was carefully chosen to be the closest ‘dead’ relative of its current bottle so we could accurately compare apples with apples.  Having old and new for exactly the same variant meant we could also review product changes, ‘flavour-drift’ (as Charles so eloquently says) or, in some cases, product zig zag!

Cutting to the chase for those who want to know the results, here are the final scores out of a maximum of 40 points –

a. Final Results
Ranked in order, the final scores for all sixteen bottles

The most striking thing is, without exception, the top eight positions are occupied by the older bottles – Not one of the modern-day variants made it into the top 50%. There’s even a notable drop from the lowest scoring old whisky (Ballantines) to the highest scoring new whisky (Chivas 12). Ballantines also displayed the most consistent profile between old and new; there were very clear similarities.

What we thought of the top two and the bottom two.

Ranked 1 out of 16: Chivas 12 (old) was described as – Sweet, Complex and interesting with good texture, lightly woody and a hint of smoke.

Ranked 2 out of 16: Johnnie Walker Red Label (old) – Rich, parsnips, artichoke (waxy), tinned tomatoes, hessian, light sweetness then dry, old fashioned.

Ranked 15 out of 16: Grants Family Reserve (new) was described as – Thin, young, grainy, chemical and bitter.

Ranked 16 out of 16: Whyte & MacKay Special (new) was described as – Sweet and mild. Grainy (acetone), hot – a surprise. Fades to nothing.

Overall Brand Scores.

When both old and new scores are combined, the overall best scoring brand is Chivas, taking 51 points out of a maximum 80 and just four points ahead of second place Johnnie Walker Red Label. Third place went to Grants who were 1.5 points behind Johnnie Walker. The lowest overall brand score was Whyte and MacKay who achieved 31 points, largely down to the very low score achieved by the modern day bottling.

b. Brands Ranked
All eight brands ranked in order of scores

 

Highest Personal Scores.

Subjective? Yes.

A matter of personal taste? It has to be.

…But the broad similarity in preference is more than a coincidence. There are clear winners.

Joint high scores are recorded where someone ranked two or more whiskies as their top score.

Old Bottles.

The Average of the personal high-scores for the old bottles was 8.3 out of 10.

The old bottles had some very clear winners. The only perfect 10 was awarded to Johnnie Walker Red Label by David, a nose more used to malt than blend…he obviously loved something in this old JWR.

Personal high scores for the old bottles
Personal high scores for the old bottles

Chivas 12 took the day with three top scores, closely followed by Johnnie Red with two top scores. Grants Stand Fast took a respectable third place.

Ranked 3 out of 16: Grants Stand Fast (old) was described as – Rich, fruity, very light cereal (rice), light scorched cloth. Drying towards the end; some spice in the finish

Almost everyone had the same top three. The most lavish in awarding his points was David, the hardest nose to please was Charles.

The most consistently scored old bottle (the bottle with the least variation of scores) was Whyte & MacKay. It scored a consistent six other than myself, and I scored it five. The most divisive old bottle was Ballantines finest where Charles scored it three and Darren scored it eight (David scored five and I scored six).

New Bottles.

The average of the personal high-scores for the contemporary bottles was 6.25.

Black Bottle and Teachers took the joint highest personal scores and were the only current bottles to score 7 or more. One of the largest polarities in score was my White Horse score of 5, David scored it just 1 with notes saying it was exceptionally bitter.

Personal high scores for the new bottles
Personal high scores for the new bottles

Ranked 10 out of 16: Teachers (new) was described as – rice pudding, rubber, dried fruits/Xmas cake mix – European oak. Rich and sweet taste, hint of coal smoke.

Ranked 13 out of 16: Black Bottle (new) was described as – light, more acetone, meaty, roast beef crisps, salt.

Lowest Personal Scores.

Old Bottles.

The average for the lowest scoring old bottles was 4.60.

With both David and Charles giving it their lowest score, Ballantines Finest was the worst performer of the old bottles.

Personal low scores for the old bottles
Personal low scores for the old bottles

Ranked 8 out of 16: Ballantines Finest (old) was described as – Somewhat closed. Carpet, flour paste; pleasant, some apple tart. Ashy and dusty.

Ranked 7 out of 16: Whyte & MacKay Special (old) was described as – Very mild nose, some face cream. Fresh, fruity, slightly musty, flour paste, somewhat artificial.

New Bottles

The average for the lowest personal score for the new bottles was 2.30.

Whyte & MacKay received the lowest score from all of us. In some cases it was a joint low score but the commonality was striking. Was there an element of significant batch variation with the Whyte & Mackay? Whatever it was, it was unilaterally scored the lowest.

Personal low scores for the new bottles
Personal low scores for the new bottles

Ranked 14 out of 16: Johnnie Walker Red Label (new) was described as – Deep colour. Deep acetone; colour suggests more. Thin. Grain whisky.

Summary and Conclusions.

Which nose was hardest to please and who was most generous with their points?

Andy awarded a total of 76 points.

Charles awarded a total of 76.5 points.

David awarded a total of 84 points.

Darren awarded a total of 99 points.

In total, 335.5 points were awarded from a maximum of 640 (both old and new combined). The split of total points is below –

Total available points and total points achieved by both new and old
Total available points and total points achieved by both new and old

The old bottles took 66% of their total possible points and the new bottles took just 39%. The old bottles in effect scored 70% higher than their modern day contemporary releases.

I’ve purposely referred to scores and numbers here rather than better or worse. That said, it appears the old variants are simply ‘better’ than the new ones in all cases. We came up with some musings as to why that might be –

1 – Age – Is the average age of whisky in the old bottles higher (the old age debate comes up again)? Both the malt and the grain components?

2 – Recipe – Higher malt content?

3 – Wood – More sherry influence in the old bottles and less ex BB from USA?

4 – Process – Barley varieties, slower malting, gentler mashing, more complex fermentation, direct fired stills and different cut points?

5 – Bottle ageing – How does the spirit change in the glass over time (to some degree, chemically it must), softening, rounding out and harmonising flavours?

All simple hypotheses and none would be easy to prove one way or the other. That said there really is no escaping the significant difference between the big-brand blends of now and then.

So what?  Where can you go to get these great old blends?  Auctions maybe, private collections possibly… And what of the future? Will flavour-drift continue? I shall look forward to doing this again in ten years.

The next time we’re together we move onto malts. David’s task, which he’s chosen to accept, is sherry-bombs of now and then. As the ex-Master Distiller from the (past?) king of sherry, The Macallan, it seems a fitting challenge.